“With each step our path arises.”
Having started our journey we are now on the go. We are confronted by questions and all kinds of situations. Having chosen to look a bit deeper into our experience instead of believing everything just as it appears, as given, our life begins to evolve. This allows us to choose in new situations and to grow further. The more we discover and include in our own life, the more there is for us to choose from. This is similar to the nice feature of smart digital devices that enables us to add apps with more and different functions.
After some time on this planet we have formed different routines for different activities; we have established an autopilot we can use when needed. We can lean back into our habits, going by autopilot as we move through the day. Often I see myself do this as I get tired, am afraid, overwhelmed, or distracted. But after being on autopilot a feeling of lack of aliveness remains. Even so it feels very good to know that this autopilot is there for me to rely on if I have to.
I feel much more vivid and active if I’m meeting the different moments and tasks of my day awake and present. This presence includes a feeling of vulnerability, too. If something unexpected happens I’m right there and fully available, at least in the beginning. On a practical level, we have our habits and our fears, which limit what we are able to do.
When we meet a life situation that is definitely a challenge for us, which brings about difficult reactions and emotions, things get more difficult. In a second we can find ourselves in an avalanche of thoughts, feelings, reactions, and reactions to these states. We might find it difficult to navigate the situation. These experiences are as normal a part of life as the pleasant ones. What is helpful then?
In a challenging situation, our autopilot might jump right in. We are very likely to act according to our individual character. Some of us can feel completely messed up internally while projecting calm on the outside, even to the point of freezing. Others react very quickly in a loud and dramatic way. Perhaps most of us will be somewhere in between, trying to “survive” the risky moment and look for a chance to relax and calm down after it.
There will always be some days when we will meet the basic challenges written about here. Maybe one happens before we even leave the house in the morning, or in traffic, at work, while going about our errands, on the way home, or at a time when we were supposed to be able to relax at the end of the day. It can be a small comment someone makes, a task too big for us, the weather, a phone call or email, a certain view arising or a painful thought. Some of these challenges are small and we overcome them easily. Others touch upon difficult, even chronic troubles we have and they can remain for a long time, change our wellbeing in the moment and possibly limit all of our abilities quite a bit.
When I notice that I’m triggered, what I’m noticing is a chemical reaction in my body. If possible I pause for a moment to investigate what’s going on. It’s very helpful to take a moment and watch what is happening because this watching activity engages our neocortex, a part of our brain that evolved long after the part that’s been triggered. The experience of being triggered is an experience of our brain stem, our much older reptilian brain, automatically starting to run our survival instincts. It immediately activates the fight-flight-freeze behaviors when a perceived danger has been detected. The neocortex, if we consciously activate it by being present, acts directly as a brake on that activity, allowing us to observe what’s happening, clarify if there is a threat or not, and decide what to do next.
A Buddhist example is of a rope in a dark room that has been mistaken for a snake, causing all manner of reactions. We see and feel the situation quite differently in the light of conscious investigation. Seeing the rope can make the fear or aggression vanish instantly. Even if something really bad has happened, we can decide about the best next steps in a calm and focused way.
The more experience we have taking these activating situations as practice, the better we’ll be able to act during them. We already have our established habits and neurological connections and we have some kind of trust in others and trust in ourselves. We have a base already, and on top of that we notice the physical and mental ramifications of the stress reaction in us. Once noticed, there are many methods we can use to cope, and we might have some of them cultivated already. This blog has presented many already (see posts below). Physical activity or exercise can be very effective, too. It allows the body to make use of hormones and activation still present in the body.
A First Step
The neuroscientific research of the past 20+ years, especially in stress and meditation research, allows for so much more insight and understanding of these processes than we knew before. Research also suggests specific coping strategies in those moments. But everything begins with the knowledge that this is our brain stem doing its thing. Most likely, the snake is actually a rope. If we deeply understand that, this gives us the power and distance to make intelligent choices that will actually change how our brain is activated (or not) in the future. This ability and space, at the level of the brain, is the activity of the neocortex itself. You might try this:
– Notice how your heart rate and breathing changes as you are in a somewhat threatening situation. You may notice other physiological changes as well. (We need these complex activations to run or act in a real threatening situation, but we can merely observe this process in a non-threatening one.)
– Observe your thoughts in a moment of activation and you can see the mental and emotional effects that make up your pattern of activation.
– If you can continue observing for some more seconds and minutes you can see how your whole mind-body-system continues changing, maybe even right back to normal. Your thoughts change and your consciousness widens again. You might experience the situation and the place you are in in a different, less activated way again.
– You might notice some thoughts or emotions that do not spontaneously resolve themselves, which keep your mind circling around certain issues. These are our deeper patterns, and I will speak about working with them in the next post.
Enjoy a beautiful summer week!
Some earlier posts that talk about different methods for self calming and self care:
– Our Human Condition (video exercise)
– Freedom (RAIN)
– Loving Care (different exercises)
– Compassion (audio)
P.S: Here is the link to the short video about presence again: